Apr 22, 2019

Sri Lanka's deadliest terror attack ever shakes a delicate balance

Relatives of a victim weep after identifying the body. Photo: Chamila Karunarathne/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

At least 290 people are dead and hundreds more wounded following a string of suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, which targeted Christians and foreigners on Easter Sunday.

The big picture: "This is by far the largest and most ambitious attack that's ever taken place in Sri Lankan history," says Robert Blake, U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka from 2006-2009 and now a senior director at McLarty Associates. Ten years on from a prolonged civil war, Blake tells me, "this really does open yet another fault line in Sri Lanka's very complex society."

The latest: Warnings of an impending attack from U.S. and Indian intelligence appear to have gone unheeded. That's led to a political blame game in Sri Lanka, where the president and prime minister were already bitterly divided.

  • So far, 24 people have been arrested. The government temporarily shut down social media, instituted a curfew and declared tomorrow a national day of mourning.
  • Blake says he was surprised to see such a sophisticated attack targeting Sri Lanka's Christian minority, which has historically had "fairly good relations with the Muslim community."

Michael Morell, the former CIA deputy director and host of the Intelligence Matters podcast, emails: "The group blamed by the Sri Lankan government for the attack, National Thowheeth Jama’ath, was not publicly known in the West."

  • Morell says the attack "underscores how quickly a group can move from a limited capability to an ability to kill hundreds."
  • "There are at least triple the number of Islamic extremists in the world today than there were on 9/11.  We need to be prepared to deal with this type of terrorism for generations," he writes.

Alyssa Ayres of the Council on Foreign Relations writes for Axios Expert Voices that the "attacks targeting Christian worshippers suggest a new front in the annals of violence in Sri Lanka."

  • "In its religious demographics, Sri Lanka is overwhelmingly Buddhist, more than 70% of the country’s population of more than 22 million, with around 12% Hindu, just under 10% Muslim, and a little more than 7% Christian," she writes.
  • "Sri Lanka's decades-long civil war was driven largely by ethnolinguistic cleavage, with Tamil separatists in the north and east fighting against the Sinhalese-majority government."
  • "Tensions have been growing between Buddhists and Muslims, however; last year Buddhist extremists attacked Sri Lankan Muslims."

Axios media reporter Sara Fischer notes that shutting down social media, or even the internet altogether, is an increasingly frequent response to violent incidents. However, research suggests it can actually make the situation more dangerous.

  • “What we’ve seen is that when social media is shut down, it creates a vacuum of information that’s readily exploited by other parties,” said Alp Toker, executive director of NetBlocks. “It can add to the sense of fear and can cause panic.”
  • "The concern among human rights experts is that interventions that are meant to curtail these terrible events sometimes provide political cover for a more general attempt to curtail people’s access to information and ability to express themselves," said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

What to watch: Blake says the immediate challenge for Sri Lanka's government is to identify all the perpetrators and determine whether an outside actor — like al-Qaeda or ISIS — was involved. But the longer-term challenges of reconciliation, accountability and good governance also demand action.

Go deeper

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 10 p.m. ET: 1,014,673 — Total deaths: 52,973 — Total recoveries: 210,335Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 10 p.m. ET: 244,678 — Total deaths: 5,911 — Total recoveries: 9,058Map.
  3. 2020 updates: The Democratic National Committee said its July convention will be postponed until August because of the coronavirus. A federal judge declined to delay Wisconsin's April 7 primary election.
  4. Jobs latest: Coronavirus unemployment numbers are like a natural disaster hitting every state.
  5. Public health latest: Anthony Fauci called for all states across the U.S. to issue stay-at-home orders. The FDA will allow blood donations from gay men after 3-month waiting period, citing "urgent need."
  6. Business latest: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said oil companies are eligible for aid from new lending programs the Federal Reserve is setting up, but not direct loans from his department.
  7. U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt: Navy removes captain of aircraft carrier who sounded alarm about coronavirus.
  8. 1 future thing: In developing countries, consequences of COVID-19 could be deeper and far more difficult to recover from.
  9. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk.
  10. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.

Mark Meadows considers new White House press secretary

Photos: Alyssa Farah, Defense Department; Stephanie Grisham, Alex Wong/Getty Images; Kayleigh McEnany, Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has privately discussed bringing on Pentagon spokesperson Alyssa Farah or Trump campaign spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany as a new White House press secretary, two sources familiar with the talks tell Axios.

Why it matters: Meadows' start on Tuesday as Trump's new chief presents a chance to overhaul a press shop that's kept a low profile since President Trump ended the tradition of daily press secretary briefings.

CNN: Fauci advises all states issue stay-at-home orders

Dr. Anthony Fauci listens to President Trump speak during a briefing on April 1. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci recommended on Thursday that all states across the U.S. implement stay-at-home orders, at a CNN town hall.

Why it matters: The recommendation stands in contrast to President Trump's calls for "flexibility." Nearly 4o states have issued stay-at-home orders to promote social distancing as a way to combat the novel coronavirus — but the orders vary in strictness and duration.

Go deeperArrow5 hours ago - Health